NEW YORK ― The fight to stop New York City’s private electric companies from building new gas-fired plants won a powerful new ally on Friday as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for an end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure in the nation’s largest metropolis.
Standing outside the 500-acre utility complex on the northwestern tip of the borough of Queens, Schumer said he opposes all new gas plants in “Queens, the city, the state and this country.”
“If we do nothing to stop global warming within a few years, every year will be worse than COVID,” he said, surrounded by nearly all of the neighborhood’s elected officials. “We do not need and cannot afford, with the existential threat to our planet, any more coal, oil or gas.”
Schumer also said he hopes this month to pass a bipartisan infrastructure package, as well as a reconciliation bill that includes a clean energy standard, in the Senate. The clean energy standard, which would be the most significant climate policy ever enacted in the U.S., would aim to get more than 80% of the country’s electricity from zero-carbon sources.
The majority leader described new gas infrastructure as a “red line” for him, noting that natural gas does not offer a pathway to staving off catastrophic warming.
Schumer’s remarks on local gas plants, which had been planned for at least a week, carried extra significance just hours after a powerful tropical storm flooded stretches of the city’s subway system. Videos of straphangers wading through waist-deep water circulated online, highlighting how unprepared the city’s aging infrastructure remains for even mild versions of the extreme weather that climate change is making more common ― much less another cyclone like 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
When asked whether his opposition to the Astoria plant extends to similar projects in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley, Schumer demurred and said he was still looking at those cases.
The controversial proposals to replace oil-fired “peaker” plants ― that is, generating units that come online when demand for electricity eclipses the supply on the grid ― with new natural gas-burning ones has largely won approval from state regulators.
But environmental groups and newly elected state lawmakers in the two neighborhoods where the power plants are found ― the Mediterranean immigrant enclave of Astoria, Queens, and Gowanus on the Brooklyn waterfront ― whipped up opposition to the projects, roping in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and city comptroller and former mayoral hopeful Scott Stringer. (Eric Adams, the moderate Democrat who declared victory in New York’s mayoral primary this week, has not taken a position on the repowering proposals.)
At a moment when scientists in every country say the world needs to rapidly reduce fossil-fuel use to avert unprecedented catastrophe, NRG Energy, the $10 billion utility giant that owns the Astoria units, said its gas generators would at least offer some reprieve to asthma-choked neighbors, who could theoretically see a reduction in air pollution.
The new generators would run on natural gas, not oil, and would thus lower emissions in the short term. By the time the state’s 100% emissions-free energy mandate comes into full force in 2040, the company said, it will retrofit its units to run on green hydrogen, the version of the fuel that uses electricity from renewables to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. But green hydrogen makes up just 0.1% of the market, compared with the roughly 95% that relies on natural gas.
“Given unprecedented heat waves already experienced this summer, New York cannot afford to gamble with the reliability of electric supply to the city,” NRG said in a statement.
State regulators do say the new combustion units would likely cause less smog. Swaths of the city did lose power as temperatures neared the triple digits last week, prompting the city to send an emergency alert asking residents to turn off unneeded air conditioning in hopes of lowering demand on the grid.
Meanwhile, the city's appetite for fossil-fueled electricity only grew this year as the city’s last nuclear power source ― the final unit of the Indian Point Energy Center, an hour’s drive up from the northernmost Bronx borough ― recently shut down following years of pressure from anti-nuclear environmentalists.
But there are cleaner ways to shore up the grid. In April, the state Public Service Commission approved a request from Consolidated Edison, the city’s private electricity distributor, to build $800 million worth of new transmission lines. The lines will allow utilities to retire the peaker plants “without the addition of any new fossil-fueled power plants,” the state regulators said.
Batteries could also help make the most of solar produced on rooftops or future municipal projects. Four years after environmental justice activists scuttled NRG’s plans to build a new gas plant in Oxnard, the southern Californian city just cut the ribbon on a massive new array of Tesla batteries owned by a private investment firm.
Recently elected officials in Queens, including likely City Council Member-elect Tiffany Cabán and Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, said that opposing fossil fuel plants emerged as a key wedge issue in their respective campaigns in the past two years.
“We know this plant is not the answer,” Mamdani said Friday.